The Braves made the first big splash of the offseason on Wednesday by signing former Rays centerfielder B.J. Upton to a five-year contract worth $75.25 million, the first new deal of this offseason to exceed $30 million in total dollars. Upton will replace departing free agent Michael Bourn in centerfield and give the Braves a righthanded power bat to compliment their young lefthanded core of Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann. However the 28-year-old Upton arrives in Atlanta not as a star, but as a player who, though valuable, has performed below the level of his talent in the major leagues to this point in his career.
Selected as a shortstop with the second overall pick in 2002 draft, Upton was rated the second-best prospect in all of baseball 19 months later on the eve of the 2004 season. That year, his age-19 season, he hit .311/.411/.519 in 313 plate appearances at Triple-A and held his own in 177 PAs in the majors, but his bat was way ahead of his glove, and his struggle to find a position prevented him from establishing himself as a major league regular until 2007. Safely ensconced in centerfield that season, the 22-year-old Upton hit .300/.386/.508 for the Devil Rays with 24 home runs and 22 stolen bases, good for a 136 OPS+ and 4.1 wins above replacement, but he has failed to approach either of those marks in any of the five seasons since.
Upton played with a torn labrum in his left shoulder in the Rays’ worst-to-first season of 2008, an injury which limited him to just nine home runs during the regular season, his lowest total in a full major league campaign, though he hit seven in the postseason that year. With his shoulder surgically repaired, Upton was expected to have a breakout age-24 season in 2009, but instead he had his worst campaign, hitting a mere .241/.313/.373 as his shoulder clearly took longer to heal than expected.
With an extra offseason to rest his shoulder, Upton saw his power return in 2010 and set a career high with 28 home runs in 2012. However due to a poor plate approach, which makes him a lock to strike out 150 times in a full season without a correspondingly high walk total, his batting average hasn’t been above .250 since 2008, and he undermined his power surge this past season with a career-low walk rate that led to a sub-.300 on-base percentage. Over the last three seasons, Upton has hit an aggregate .242/.317/.436 while averaging 23 home runs and 36 stolen bases.
That last is probably the most underappreciated aspect of his game. Upton has stolen 30 or more bases in each of the last five seasons, topping 40 in three of those campaigns. His raw stolen base totals have declined a bit in the past two seasons, but that seems to be in part the result of his being a smarter basestealer. His 31 steals in 2012 were his lowest total since 2007, but his 84 percent success rate was the best of his career.
Upton’s play in centerfield is another matter. His speed, strong arm and apparent ease in gliding to balls in center make him look like an elite defender, but mental errors, occasionally lackadaisical play and a preference to play more shallow than his range really allows all undermine his natural ability to play his position. As a result, he has actually graded out as below average according to some advanced metrics.
Ultimately, Upton does as many things poorly as he does well, but there’s no denying his talent or his potential to have a breakout season in any given year. Relative to Bourn, who is nearly two years older, Upton will be a significant downgrade in the field, but could very well compensate for or even overcome that deficit at the plate. Getting out of the pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field could help boost his raw numbers, though his home/road splits have been pretty even over the last three years.
Upton’s deal compares favorably to the extension Adam Jones received from the Orioles this past May. Upton and Jones are comparable players who combine power and speed with low on-base percentages and defense that looks better than it actually is. Both centerfielders will turn 33 in August of the final year of their new contracts, and both will make $75 million ($75.25 million for Upton) in the final five years of those contracts. The difference between the two deals is that the Orioles extended Jones more than a season-and-a-half in advance of his free agency, while Upton was on the open market.
When the Orioles extended Jones, I wrote that the Orioles were likely playing him what he was worth but criticized them for not getting a discount in exchange for relieving Jones of the next season and a half of uncertainty during which an ill-timed injury or performance dip could have undermined his value on the open market. That Upton landed effectively the same deal on the open market both validates that take and is a good indication that the Braves did not overpay for his services, though they do also sacrifice their first-round draft pick in 2013 due to the Rays having extended a qualifying offer to Upton.
Of course what both the Braves and Orioles are betting on is a breakout that would make either contract look like a bargain. Upton certainly has that potential, and the Braves have signed him for what could prove to be his prime seasons (though he played at the peak age of 27 this past season). However, even if he simply continues to be the same talented but frustrating player for the Braves that he has been for the Rays, as long as he stays healthy, the Atlanta should get its money’s worth. -- By Cliff Corcoran